EUGENE, Ore. — College football long has reeled with the thorny issue of the curvature of the Earth. It has existed in a vast country with four mainland time zones, and this geographical inconvenience has made it difficult to coax the snooty people of the East Coast into appreciating the efforts of the three-hours-younger people on the West Coast.
That's especially if the West Coast people kick off in the West Coast evening.
The East Coast people have sleep patterns to obey.
Still, it might be worth disrupting those patterns, staying up late, ravaging biorhythms, and having a look at what is ongoing with the team from Pullman, Wash. It was one thing when Washington State reached 5-0 by toppling Southern California, 30-27, two Friday nights ago, leading to what sixth-year Coach Mike Leach dubbed a clothed "Woodstock" of an on-field celebration. It's another thing when Leach followed that by noting that "the team we're playing this week's just as good as the team we played last week," and so it's quite another when Washington State then mauled that team, Oregon, on Saturday night, 33-10.
Yet in the category of one thing and another thing, it's another thing altogether that the No. 11 Cougars (6-0) are doing all this with smashing defense. To those who follow these things and have no sleep patterns at all, that aspect seems almost extra-terrestrial. Any gross generalization of Leach's Washington State is of a program that does not busy itself with defense. In the three seasons preceding this one, the Cougars ranked 99th, 94th and 69th in total defense.
This season, they were 11th , and that was before they took an Oregon team that had scored 77, 42, 49, 35 and 45, and throttled it by allowing just 10 points on 277 total yards. Even when factoring in that Oregon lost quarterback Justin Herbert last week and had to go with true freshman Braxton Burmeister, who performed creditably in the circumstances, this notion of a Washington State defense is a new potion for the chemistry set.
It even has a coordinator named (Alex) Grinch, surely one of the best defensive-coordinator names in history.
"We have great team chemistry," said redshirt freshman linebacker Jahad Woods, who soon added, "College football is, like, the funnest time of my life so far."
"They've got a great coordinator in Grinch and they play as hard as they can every play," Cougars receiver Kyle Sweet said. "It's really fun to watch."
"I thought we ran to the ball well," Leach said, and then said also, "I thought we did a good job changing our looks and keeping them off-balance."
When Leach departs a field such as Autzen Stadium, hands in pockets, stands emptied, the last hecklers still groaning about the pass-interference calls, he looks so unassuming that he could be a professor or maybe a shy administrator in a black windbreaker. Yet as he departed this time, this professor of American football offense did so in a situation even more promising than in successful recent seasons (including a nibble at Pac-12 North Division title contention last year, into November), even in a conference of which he notes, "Every team's an eyelash from the other team. Everybody can get everybody."
He even calls his plays a tad differently, knowing there's help on the other side.
"Aw, a little bit. A little bit," he said, before he veered off into something about punting, then said, "The other thing is, we kind of had some third-and-longs where I would have been inclined to go for it on fourth down if I had the shot." He went 0-for-0 on fourth downs and punted seven times, as his defense looked sublimely prepared for a quarterback it could not study on film.
Of Oregon, Leach said, "They did all that cloak-and-dagger [during game week], you know, guessing who was going to play [quarterback], which we didn't care, because, you know, they have an offensive identity that they've had for a long time. And obviously that guy was going to try to duplicate that. It's kind of like if all of a sudden we replaced a quarterback, I'm sure everybody wouldn't prepare for some option. I think they would prepare the same way they always did."
The defensive feat meshed with another feat, the one Georgia Coach Kirby Smart lately called the hardest in college football: getting very young male humans to handle success and noise. The Cougars clearly aced that. Said safety Hunter Dale, "Sunday, when we met, we decided that [Southern California] game was done. We can't dwell on that game anymore."
Said Leach, "I felt we got on task pretty quickly. I thought we were locked in Monday for our meetings, and I thought definitely for our practices throughout the week, I thought we were pretty locked in. And I thought they did a good job, you know, focusing in. I think our locker room has done a pretty good job with it."
Said quarterback Luke Falk, "I think it's just guys, they've been here a while, they've played a lot of football and they buy into the system. So we've just got a lot of guys, at each position, I think, that's played a lot of football and know how to get it done, and they just lead the other guys, and the other guys are doing a great job following."
They're rich in senior leaders such as linebacker Frankie Luvu from American Samoa. They have Falk, with his steep experience and his career touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of 105-28. And they have Leach, who long has fascinated anyone curious about how 11 men with a ball might outfox and then outrun the 11 other men hunting the 11 men with the ball.
Add to that his oft-singular takes on matters of the day, such as the issue this past week with Washington Coach Chris Petersen lamenting the kickoff times, and how nobody in the East gets to watch, followed by ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit countering Saturday that Petersen should thank ESPN for increasing the eyeballs watching Washington, even around midnight in the East.
Chimed in Leach, in a press conference in a tent after another big win, his voice full of its fine gravel, "Shoot, when I've been back east, they don't go to bed, anyway. I mean, you know, New York's supposed to be the city that never sleeps. They keep all their joints open down there till 4 a.m. They sound pretty awake to me."